Vlad Nanca on Wed, 12 Feb 2003 18:16:05 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-ro] digigraphy

"Deletable" images: "digigraphy" introduction theory

Kotaro Iizawa

It has already been 10 years since digital cameras came onto the market. At first, the operation of camera bodies and the precision of produced images were not even comparable to those of silver halide cameras. But nowadays, I am beginning to feel that digital cameras are functionally better.

I present here data for the production and domestic shipment in 2001 of silver halide cameras and digital cameras made by Japanese manufacturers (Japan Camera Industry Association "Japanese Camera Industry/ Japanese Photography Annual Report2002"). According to this data, the production numbers and prices of silver halide cameras were 27 million 392 thousand units (236,059,000,000yen) while those of digital cameras were 15 million 956 thousand units (551,388,000,000yen). In addition the number of domestic shipments of silver halide cameras were 3 million 18 thousand bodies (46,599,000,000yen) with 4 million 831 thousand bodies (178,453,000,000yen) for digital cameras.

Looking at this data, one can see that the production numbers of silver halide cameras is higher than their digital counterparts, but the number of domestic shipments and prices reflect a very different reality. Furthermore, we should see these results in comparison to previous years. Looking at production numbers, silver halide cameras stood at 84.3%, with 147.5% for digital cameras. It is obvious that digital cameras are becoming predominant over silver halide cameras as far as the camera market in concerned. The analogs are beginning to become a minority.

After the 2000 Sydney Olympics, newspaper publishing companies and communication companies switched 100% to digital cameras when gathering materials. As a result, shooting, sending and processing images are all handled through digital equipment and computers, which led to darkrooms at photography divisions of newspaper publishing companies vanishing. While up-to-the-minute reports have the highest priority in the journalistic world, it is obvious that digital cameras which can instantly send images over cell phones and the Internet from all around the world are definitely the most in demand today.

In this situation one can ask, are digital cameras or images that digital cameras produce tools of almighty magic? Are they changing the analog photography world in fundamentally revolutionary ways? It is said that with the appearance of digital cameras, the quality of photographic expression has changed, but is this true? If it has changed, what has, and how? Are images taken by digital cameras, indeed photographs in the first place? They look exactly like photographs, but perhaps they are somewhat alien in that they do not fit into the category of "photographs".

Of course it is impossible to answer all these questions at once. Here, I would like to focus on one marked characteristic of digital images; the delete-ability of images. Many of you might think it natural and not surprising. Anybody who has used a digital camera, must have experienced "deleting" images that they messed up and don't need. With one push of a button, images disappear in an instant. We are doing this everyday without giving it a second thought.

But to think of this for a moment, this "delete-ability" is extremely strange. An image that was definately before your eyes suddenly disappears without leaving a trace of its existence. Where did the image go? Of course there is nowhere for it to go. It is literally nothing=zero. Could not we call this the appearance of a new form of magic? A man could disappear with the whirl of a magician's cape, but in the end, the person appears from somewhere and the show ends successfully. Digital images, however, do not work in the same way. Once you "delete" an image, it will never show up, it is erased for eternity.

This "delete-ability" is possibly the decisive difference between photographs and digital images. What makes it "decisive" is evident when you try to actually "delete" a photograph. Whether it is a film or photographic paper, deleting it completely is hard work. Scraping, ripping or smearing photos we could come up with various ways, but they are all "imperfect". If you scrape it, a residue of scum will remain. If you rip it or shred it, still, the scrap of the photograph remains. Even when you smear it, ink will not delete the image below it. Even when you burn it, the ashes remain. One has to concentrate enormous energy on an operation that could be done with the push of a button if it was a digital image.

This "un-deletable-ness" comes from the fact that photographs are images and that they are solid substances. I don't have much time to spare on explaining this principle of photographs in detail, but one can say that it is a physical trace left by light. As rocks make a dent when hitting the earth, the light that hits a sensitive plate changes silver salts into visible images. At the same time, you need paper and gelatin films to support and ground the image. Thus, since photographs have this physical foundation, one would need to extoll great effort to "delete" them.

On the contrary, a digital image is an accumulation of numerical pixels made up of 0 or 1, and does not have physical substance as such. The images that appear on the monitors of digital cameras or computers are only tentative images. However realistic the image can seem, it remains only a temporary cohesive body of numerical data that can be rearranged or modified in any way. And so it can be "deleted" in an instant.

The emptiness and fragility of tentative images always cast a shadow over digital images. "All is vanity", so to speak. In this world, everything is "empty" and all things do not have fixed physical substances, and float in the air. That is probably why we can push the "delete" button without feeling any resistance or burden.

How should "digital photos", digital images printed out via a printer then be considered? Sure enough, these are supported through mediums, materials like paper and ink. I may be wrong, but I feel that digital photographs and generally printed photographs are slightly different. I don't intend to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of prints. It's simply the feeling that I get from digital photographs; this emptiness and fragility of tentative images that I have been discussing so far.

Silver photographic printing enables us to sense (although it is kind of an illusion) the rather strange feeling and depth from when images entwine with paper fibers. We don't expect this feeling from digital images. They rather look as though they are floating,, weak objects.

The point is, being "delete-able" crucially affects the character of digital images. This involves significant meanings, for "delete-ability" casts a dark shadow over all expressions by digital cameras-- including shooting, processing data and its general usage. In fact, in the process of depicting digital images, we are unknowingly influenced by it.. I am not trying to say, "Go back to nature" as worldly modern rappers do, completely denying tentative things. But at least within the field of Photographic Expression Theory there is no doubt that we need to radically re-examine the scheme of digital photography..

For example, Henri Cartier Bresson's thoughts about "Decisive Moments" cannot remain unchanged within digital image expression. Cartier Bresson is one of the photographers who developed the aesthetics of snap shots taken with small cameras such as the LEICA during the 1930's. He has explained his own principles of work in the preface of the long-time influential photographic collection "The Decisive Moment (1952)" in the following way:

"A balance must be established between these two worlds - the one inside us
and the one outside us. As the result of a reciprocal process, both these
worlds come to form a sigle one. And it is this world that we must

In short, the internal world and external reality combine and unify during the process of shooting, and settle as absolute images of "decisive moments". Here we may identify a strong intention to fix aspects of floatable reality into specific points. The power of personal intention makes these photographs intense. The moment he clicks the shutter, the world freezes as firm images. His photographs inscribe "the world he saw", like testaments.

It is difficult to exercise this kind of strong intention, as we see in Cartier Bresson's photographs,with digital image expressions because digital images are "empty" existences and are only absurd temporary semblances. Snapshots taken with digital cameras are totally different from those of silver halide cameras. Anyone who has actually experienced taking images with digital cameras will have noticed that the movement of taking photos without looking into the lens, the way you keep the camera away from your eyes and look into the viewer, is something instable and ambiguous. It is different from taking intended snaps (originally meaning "grab quickly and snap at"). Of course decisions of structural composition and the timing of when to click the shutter are up to the person who is taking the photographs, in a way, but they are more like "can take" and "can see" photos than "shoot" and "see" photos.

Unlike silver cameras where 36 exposure films are generally used, digital cameras, depending on the capacity of memory cards used, contain functions to take hundreds of serial images. This drastically changes the very notion of snapshots; where you try to shoot the 'prize' in a single hit. According to newspaper cameramen, they are required to take continuous shots and use digital cameras as if they were taking videos, not to shoot "decisive moments". From these continuous images obtained by shooting randomly, desk workers choose appropriate shots for use on the final printed page. There is no room for the intentions of the cameraman, as they now have to become "shutter-men".

A "Snapshot" was a symbolic technique of the 20th century; the photographic century. An independent individual, as a photographer, complies with his own desire and will to decide when to click the shutter. The image captured here is presented in photographic collections and museums as the "work" of the photographer's engraved self-existence, and is revered by people, and continues to preserve a sense of eternal life. One can speculate today that such modern perspectives on photography are on the cusp of disappearing with the advent of digital images which have the capacity to vanish in an instant.

I once heard a story from a person working at a digital camera lens development division. The digital camera users of today don't seem to save image data or print them out. They check their images in the viewer on the camera with friends who are there, and "delete" them on the spot. I suppose that this means the appearance of digital images is about to radically change the known usage of photography. "SHA-MAIL" photography via mobile phones is a typical example of images deleted immediately after an extremely short life, un-saved. Has such a situation happened in human history before? Questions of this magnitude inevitably must be asked.

To think in this way, what we need to do now is, to seek for an adequate principle of expression for digital images that is different from what we have known as photography. Just so I won't cause any misunderstandings, I do not think digital images will completely replace normal photography. I think the fate that swept paintings a century and a half ago with the appearance of photography, has itself crept upon photography. As you know, with the "shock of photography", impressionist paintings followed the road of "purity" towards abstract paintings. In the same way, the appearance of digital images will pull the trigger to redefine what photography is, and to seek to establish the core of its bounded principle of existence.

If anything, digital images are the images plunged into utter confusion. As far as I know, most parts don't function further than "convenient and efficient alternatives to photographs". When digital images first emerged, the possibility of fabricating images was highly valued. Using software such as Photoshop, the compositing, postalization, and deformation of images that took photographers a long time to do in the dark room, could be done swiftly and easily. This was amazing. But these superficial alteration of images which have now become highly stylized, seem to be following the artifice that photographs culminated for over 16 years. Digital images should not simply follow, rather I think there are techniques suitable for digital images, just like the snapshots of earlier photography.

To my regret, I still cannot express what such new techniques could be. The accumulation of my optical experiences is poor and above anything else, the techniques of digital images are still in ther infancy. It took nearly 100 years for snapshots to develop its aesthetics since the advent of photographic invention in 1839. But we can perhaps feel some possibilities sprouting. It is still a trickle of water, but in a while, I expect it to swell into a stream.

Right now, perhaps we can find the sprout of such possibilities on the web, especially at sites developed by individuals. "Artbow.com" (http://www.artbow.com), a site by Norio Kobayashi that was opened in 1997, could be said to be one of the most highly motivated experiments.

This site has pages such as "Digital Kitchen", "Campus", "Japanese-Blue" which shows Kobayashi's works. The Digital Kitchen is his "digital camera diary" where he shoots his daily kitchen and dining experiences. He records matter-of-factly pictures of how the food is cooked, laid out on the table, eaten, and cleaned and loads it on the web. At first sight, this may seem tiresome, but here and there, the light from a window pours in while his wife crosses the screen with a lithe movement, and dishes of food render a joyous rhythm; you won't grow tired of it even if you gaze away for a while.

Kobayashi wrote an essay about his expressions on the web titled "the Dream of photographs" which you can read on his website.

In it, he writes:

"The internet is a minor media, but it is a precious place for me to express my "Dream of photographs". I counterview my own photos when I upload them over and over again daily. Things go on whether people see them or not. This speed takes me out somewhere I don't know. The vanishing images whenever I "click", immaterialistic waves, the continuous flow of images formulating while also demising themselves... I think "the digital" needs physicalization too."

I think the "Dream of photographs" that Kobayashi talks of here, should be renamed "the Dream of digital images". Anyhow, I think through his works on the web, he has cultivated a precise, on-the-legit sense of awareness for this media. "The vanishing images whenever I "click", immaterialistic waves, the continuous flow of images formulating while also demising themselves...". Kobayashi, in addition to grasping the essential qualities of digital images, is trying to compensate the sense of distance and uncomfort between himself and the images. His experiments through Artbow.com, is an accumulation of tripping and audatious trials to transform "delete-ability" into expressions.

Not only Kobayashi, or limited to platforms like the web, the adventure of digital images is about to fully commence. It will definitely swell in the future. Beyond that point, the possibilities, along with the limitations of digital images=digigraphy in a core meaning (and not digital images=photography), should come into view.

( translated by Keiko Hirosue)

Vlad Nanca

Bd Regina Elisabeta 69, Apartamentul 2, Sector 5, Bucuresti ROMANIA

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